Collective memories

Naftali Moses describes how public decided how he should grieve for his son, murdered in Merkaz Harav shooting.

Funeral for victims of Merkaz Harav shooting 521 (photo credit: Reuters)
Funeral for victims of Merkaz Harav shooting 521
(photo credit: Reuters)
Part catharsis, part religious reflection, part social criticism, Mourning Under Glass: Reflections on a Son’s Murder takes the reader into the heart of a father whose son was one of the eight students slaughtered by Alaa Abu Dheim in Jerusalem’s Yeshivat Merkaz Harav Kook on March 6, 2008.
Naftali Moses opens the book by reconstructing the events beginning at 8:10 p.m. the night Dheim carried an assault rifle into the school and ending four hours later when his son’s high school principal confirmed his worst fear with the dreaded phrase, “The Lord gives, the Lord taketh away.”
From that moment on, the indescribable tragedy was not about one family’s loss, nor even about eight families’ losses.
The media examined the calamity from a range of calculated political viewpoints – one commentator labeled the yeshiva a “fascist institution.”
Municipal officials planned memorial events to channel public expressions of sorrow. Israeli and Diaspora Jews staked a claim in the grieving process for boys who could easily have been their own sons.
And yet 16-year-old Avraham David Moses was one man’s son. A central theme of the book is Naftali Moses’s feeling that throughout the year of mourning, well-meaning people hijacked his personal grief and steered it in directions he would have refused to go in if anyone had bothered to ask.
This snowballing process started with the yeshiva’s decision to host a group funeral and was followed by myriad communal memorial assemblies that, to Moses, seemed to flatten his son’s essence “into a poster-thin image of who he once was.” To mark the first yahrzeit (anniversary of their death), an anonymous American donor provided a Torah scroll to each bereaved family in a live-streamed extravaganza involving 300 international institutions – again, with little or no input from the boys’ parents.
“Throughout the year after Avraham David’s death, I would often feel battered by the memorial ideas, initiatives and programs that others would sometimes offer, sometimes foist upon me,” Moses writes. “I worried about protecting my son’s memory; about keeping it from being washed away by the commonness of public martyrdom. He was not just a symbol, but a person – a unique individual whom I loved dearly.”
The reader does not know if Avraham David’s mother fully shared this sentiment.
Her voice is not present in the book, which was self-published with a grant from the One Family Fund. She and Moses divorced eight years before their son’s murder and both remarried, living next door to each other in Efrat so as to share custody of their two boys.
This situation was a further complicating factor in the year following Avraham David’s death. In fact, the author admits that he decided to participate in the gala Torah reception partly because it was meaningful to some of the other parents and partly because if he hadn’t his ex-wife’s husband would have been “the one to carry the public mantle of memory for my son.”
The frank rawness of Moses’s emotions contributes to the book’s compelling nature. However, certain sections might better have been tempered or left out entirely. For example, a chapter entitled “A Concise Field Guide to Condolence Callers” comes off as mean-spirited in its descriptions of awkward or insensitive visitors during the shiva mourning period. There are important lessons to be imparted from the hurtful incidents Moses experienced, but too much negative energy is expended by dwelling on them.
In the more inspiring parts of the book, Moses displays an enviable gift for conveying complex concepts regarding faith.
He relates a homily from the kabbalistic book of Zohar describing how righteous souls of the departed are clothed in glowing garments from the Garden of Eden. He shares poignant excerpts from hundreds of letters demonstrating the writers’ strong feeling of fraternity for a fellow Jew they’d never met. He beautifully explains the community-building power of the kaddish prayer (though he errs in his calculation of how many times a mourner recites it over the course of 11 months) and brings new appreciation for its ancient words, “which readily admit of their own inadequacy.”
Moses does not hesitate to delve into discussions of theodicy that arose from the mass murder of yeshiva students.
He analyzes an interview with his son’s principal in which media personality Ilana Dayan, “the blond epitome of the intelligent, secular Israeli,” hunts for a chink in the faith-armor of the gray-bearded rabbi. Where was God on that fateful Thursday night? Moses can answer this question: “I believe that He was with my 16-year-old son as he breathed his last prayers...
God was with those trembling in fear behind the classroom door… God was with me as I looked for the last time at my son’s face. And those who wish to emulate the Holy One in His kindness can try to be there for others in the face of our own all-too-human pain and suffering.”
Dealing as it does with difficult – even unfathomable – topics, Mourning Under Glass offers universally valuable human insights to readers regardless of their level of faith.